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The Meaning Of “Progressive Historiography”

One must decide the meaning of “progressive historiography. ” It can mean either the history written by “progressive historians,” or it can mean history written by historians of the Progressive era of American history and shortly after. The focus that was chosen for this paper is more in keeping with the latter interpretation, if for no other reason than it provides a useful compare-and-contrast “control” literature. The caveat is this: the focus of this report is on the predominant question of the historiographical period: was the war a revolution or a war for independence?

One could choose many other questions to argue, questions that historians have for years disputed about the revolution, but there are a number of reasons why this report was chosen for this particular assignment; the two best follow. First, it is an old and time-honored question that professors and instructors have posed to their students for years; of pre-Civil War historiographical questions, it is perhaps second only in fashion during the last twenty to twenty-five years to the Jefferson-Hemmings paternity controversy. Second, the revolution-or-independence question is one of those which must be answered through interpretation.

A case cannot be made that is so utterly conclusive as to exclude all others; it is that very fact that makes history at once so frustrating and so fascinating. What better way could there be to look at the writings of a specific school of historians? Therefore, in the pursuit of “personal truth,” we must proceed… Perhaps the most famous of all progressive historians is Frederick Jackson Turner. His most famous argument is not devoted strictly to the American Revolution, but instead to the effects of the American frontier.

In a sentence, his argument is that the frontier was the chief determinant in American history. This is not to say that Turner did not write about the war; he did, in his seminal work, “The Frontier in American History,” there are discussions of the frontier’s effect on the coming of the revolution. It is worth noting, before exploring Turner’s arguments, that the frontier in this period was only about one hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. Of course, as the period under scrutiny approaches the war chronologically, the frontier moves away from the ocean.

But it is important to remember that Turner defines the Jamestown of Captain John Smith in 1607 as the frontier in its initial stage. So, in this context, it makes sense to the almost-twenty-first-century reader when Turner refers to the frontier as defined by the Proclamation of 1763 as the “Old West. ” Turner gives an idea of his world-view near the end of the book: The transformations through which the United States is passing in our own day are so profound, so far-reaching, that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the birth of a new nation in America.

The revolution in social and economic structure of this country during the past two decades is comparable to what occurred when independence was declared and the constitution was formed, or to the changes wrought by the era which began half a century ago, the era of Civil War and Reconstruction (Turner 1920, 311). This point bears further examination in the context of all the historians being compared in this paper, but in a later section. It is more important at this point to continue with the discussion of Turner’s examination of the war as it relates to his frontier thesis.

Briefly, Turner argues five points specific to the war in his overall treatment of the frontier. First, a fighting frontier had been established from Georgia to New England as a result of the colonial wars with the French. Second, a primitively agricultural and democratically self-sufficient society had been established on the frontier that was profoundly and fundamentally different from the society from which the frontiersmen’s progenitors had sprung; it is of course because those progenitors were different from their fellows that they came across the ocean in the first place.

Third, the frontier developed home markets for the growing—–though still small—–colonial industrial base, lessening the importance of the triangular trade. Fourth, non-English settlers had caused an unintended and at first informal breach with the mother country that later fueled separatist sentiment; it is no great thing in the thick of rebellion to forget that the war was at first a war for the rights of Englishmen when one is not an Englishman in the first place.

Fifth, the frontier by its very nature reflected a contest between the privileged and the non-privileged; Turner maintains that this dichotomy was more in evidence outside New England and was more of a democratic revolution outside that region than inside (Turner 1920, 106-111). Of course, one is tempted to minimize, or even belittle this last observation by pointing out that the New Englanders provided the bulk of the troops for the rebel army… In any case, Turner’s arguments foreshadow those of another historian, J. Franklin Jameson.

Both argue a geographical or quasi-geographical determinism. Both argue that the war was a revolution that resulted in greater democracy, though their definitions of democracy are rather broad. Before turning to Jameson, however, another work by Turner should be mentioned, entitled “The Significance of Sections in American History,” which was published in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. This book is not exclusively about the American Revolution. Instead, it discusses several important factors in American history from a demographic perspective.

Turner echoes his own frontier thesis in this work, citing instances in the West that shaped the character of the Revolution. The behavior of the earliest pioneers was important in understanding the later evolution of the country, he argued, and focused on the North Carolina frontiersmen. He concluded that the Association desired “not to be arded as a lawless mob,” and their petition for annexation to North Carolina led to a regularization of the political status of the frontier districts (Turner 1932, 97).

This pattern would be repeated again and again in the decades after the war, but Turner’s point is that the frontier districts were just as important to the political and social nature of the struggle as were the established eastern districts and towns which have received so much more “press” in the literature. Another factor of consequence in Turner’s view was early sectionalism (indeed, that is the focus of this particular book, much more so than the American war for independence).

The West,” which in the middle nineteenth century meant such lands as Iowa and Indiana, instead meant in pre-Revolutionary years the western regions of the existing colonies. Turner specifically discussed the western regions of Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. He suggested that the geography of the region–rocky and mountainous, in distinct contrast to the alluvial plains of the tidewater region–made for an order much more like New England society than the planter-led society of Virginia and the rest of the South. He contended that the frontier communities were more democratic.

An informed reader can today easily infer that Turner was writing not just of the revolution, but of the beginnings of the sectional competition that culminated in the American Civil War (Turner 1932, 293). But it is the geographical determinism that Turner advances that is of the most interest to this paper; one sees the same sort of argument again and again while reading the works of Turner and his fellows in the progressive school. J. Franklin Jameson wrote a landmark work in 1926. More accurately, it was a collection of four lectures that were subsequently collected into a hundred-page book.

His basic premise was that the war was a social revolution. He made four main arguments (coincidental with the four lectures), which follow. First, Jameson argued that the status of persons was changed. He maintained that slavery was ended in a significant region by the war, and that abolitionism became fashionable and real as a political force. In order to contest this conclusion, it is a simple thing to counter-argue that since Massachusetts had but five slaves in 1776, it seems that slavery was definitely on its way out before the war even began in earnest.

Moreover, it would be obvious to point out that abolitionism was certainly not new to the Northern States before and during the war. In short, the arguments regarding the status of people and how that status changed as a result of the war really do not hold up under scrutiny. Second, Jameson argued that the nature of the land promoted change in the people. He claimed that the geography of New England made for revolutionary thought among small holders and freemen that was not so evident among those in the tidewater south.

But the colonists were “different sorts” to begin with; the Pilgrims and Puritans of the North were outcasts before they came across the Atlantic. The middle-staters of Pennsylvania–the Quakers–and especially Maryland–Catholics, Huguenots, and Presbyterians–were already in search of a place where they could be different and be at least quasi-independent. To lay the responsibility for the revolution on mountains and streams, thereby ignoring the nature of the people before they arrived, is a bit much to swallow.

Did the land change the colonists, or were the human changes to the land merely a reflection of the ideas the colonists had with them already, and of the institutional-cultural heritage of these people? At the very least, it is a chicken-and-egg question, but it seems that the latter argument is the accurate one. In this same vein, Jameson cites the end of primogeniture as a social-revolutionary aspect of the war. To illustrate the inaccuracy of this interpretation, one need only mention that primogeniture was abolished in Britain over time without a war at all.

It seems that the trend away from primogeniture was already afoot in the British world (of which the colonists were a part, and of which even in 1776 most wished to remain). War or no war, primogeniture would almost certainly have receded, as it did. In addition, Jameson claims that the frontier unleashed a revolution. His view is that the frontier itself was in some way responsible for revolutionary attitudes and thoughts, as if the land itself changed the way that the residents thought. For the sake of brevity, let us say only that Turner’s frontier thesis is a much more convincing picture of American history than is Jameson’s.

In short, Turner argues that the frontier throughout American history has attracted and promoted certain types of people and certain types of behavior. Jameson implies that the frontier made revolutionaries, and that when the war was over, they stopped being revolutionary. Turner makes the point from the opposite pole: the frontier, by its very nature, provided an environment where people who would otherwise have been misfits and malcontents could flourish and achieve a modicum of what would then certainly have been termed “respectability.

Jameson’s argument virtually anthropomorphizes the frontier, while Turner casts the region in a more proper role: that of a passive agent. Third, Jameson discusses business and industry. He discusses how the war caused the Agricultural Revolution to be visited upon the Americas. In Europe, where land was at a premium, peasants had had to adopt new methods in order to survive their growing population. By contrast, in the colonies, land was cheap and plentiful, so new methods were not required.

Nonetheless, it seems safe to argue that the methods adopted in the colonies would have been adopted eventually, war or no war, when the population density made it sensible to do so. Along similar lines, Jameson suggests that the war caused a revolutionary growth and change in war and commercial industries: paper, salt, powder, cannons, and muskets all had to be manufactured to fight the war. Of course, after 1918, when the industrial nature of warfare had become painfully evident. It is easy to see how he made this conclusion.

But it is also easy to see, even with the benefit of the same hindsight that Jameson could have used, that the growth of industry and commerce would almost certainly have occurred anyway, war or no war. Napoleonic France was not converted into an industrial power, despite nearly twenty-five years of virtually non-stop warfare that was of a far greater magnitude than was the “American Revolution. ” It is far more sensible to argue that the industry and commerce of the Americas would have developed as a result of trade with Europe, with or without a war.

Lastly, many participants argued at the time that the colonies were economically weakened because of the war for a significant period. How is it that Jameson concluded the exact opposite one hundred fifty years later? Fourth, Jameson argued that thought and feeling changed. At first, this claim seems the most plausible. He suggested that the war was a precursor to the European revolutionary fervor of the 1830s; this perhaps has some validity, but the fervor of the 1830s was a more peasants-against-the-aristocracy sort of thing than it was a taxation-without-representation sort of thing.

Another difference was nationalism, a decidedly made-in-France phenomenon. Greeks, for example, rose up against the Ottoman Turks in 1830 in order to establish a Greek state. This was not the nature of the American war, for no foreign power of different ethnicity held sway in the colonies; certainly no Germans rose up in Pennsylvania in order to establish a German-style state out of the old British colony. Indeed, Germans tended toward loyalist sensibilities. Jameson argued that the war had the effect of creating more colleges and of diffusing religious faith.

This certainly is a description of cultural contact with Europe more than it is a description of a result of a war. These very things took place in Europe before and after the American war; sometimes these phenomena were accompanied by violence and armed struggle, and sometimes not. The Americas were already religiously diverse, and it probably comes as no surprise that the conclusion to this paper is that the growth of colleges was accompanied by, and was a result of, a substantial growth in the population.

This rather leaves the war out of the picture; for wars seldom create things, but instead tend to destroy or impede them. It should be pointed out that Jameson makes no political arguments outside of suffrage. (One generally thinks of dramatic political changes as being a result of a “revolution. ”) He discusses political institutions not at all. He is only concerned with who had the vote. However, even before the war, the colonies had wider suffrage than the European countries from which the people and their forebears came; how is this a revolutionary outcome?

Were these people not fighting to preserve that which they already had against the growing influence of the House of Commons, which threatened to take their self-determination away? Slavery was already receding in the colonies; it was evolving away–in Vermont in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784; if the revolution was the cause, why then did abolition, albeit gradual, continue its march in New York in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804?

The American variety of slavery was already “less bad” than in many, if not most, other countries, regardless of what twentieth-century movie and television productions might have you believe. Was the country not already progressive? Another writer of note who is labeled as a progressive historian is Carl Becker. He was a student of Frederick Jackson Turner and submitted as his doctoral dissertation–it was called a thesis at that time–a work entitled “The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York. ” In it, Becker writes that the political parties in what became the state of New York were embroiled in a tremendous rivalry.

The members of the “conservative” wing wanted only to go so far as to assert their rights as Englishmen, while the radical element desired independence. Becker argues for a compromise interpretation in his conclusion, stating that “although the conservatives were successful in securing a government measurably centralized and measurably aristocratic, we know that there was considerable pressure for a more democratic form” (Becker 1909, 276). In short, Becker describes the desire for a significantly different form of government than that which England had, and existed in the colony before the insurrection.

In the end, of course, the form was essentially the same; that is, a bicameral legislature was placed in the stead of Parliament, the President (who likely could have been King George I of America) was substituted for the King of England, and a judicial branch was established to play the role of the British courts. It is significant to mention that the second provincial congress of New York opposed independence from Great Britain at least as late as May 14, 1775 (Becker 1909, 252). It is the extent of suffrage that gives a measure of truth to the progressive argument as symbolized by Becker’s work.

The growth of political groups in New York presaged the formation of formal parties in the colonies as a whole, foreshadowed the further entrenchment of those same parties after the Constitution was ratified, and paralleled the same developmental path in Great Britain. The same congress mentioned above voted to extend the franchise to freeholders and freemen with holdings equivalent to forty pounds (Becker 1909, 252). The Committee of fifty-one was essentially dissolved as the Mechanics and the fifty-one merged in a new system that eliminated wards and substituted in its place a system of election by citizens at large (Becker 1909, 166).

This presaged a similar reform in England after the war with Napoleon, the Reform Bill of 1832. One is tempted to wonder if that reform in England was delayed by the war; certainly one could argue that the reform in New York was prompted by the war, but one can also be left with a sense that the change was on the verge of taking place anyway, war or no war. Nonetheless, Becker is consistent with other progressive historians when he argues the case of extended suffrage as a result of the conflict with Great Britain.

Becker is also in step with his progressive counterparts when he argues his “road to revolution” thesis from the point of view of merchants. He spends an entire chapter discussing in detail the relative efficacy of the non-importation measures instituted by the colonies (the word “boycott” had of course not yet been coined in the 1770s, and historians of the early 1900s were apparently disinclined to use it). In short, he argues that the non-intercourse measures (a synonym for non-importation) were essentially ineffective.

To be sure, there were fluctuations, but the image of the non-importation measures must be one of reducing the flow of goods, not one of shutting the flow off and turning it on when the colonists grievances had been redressed (Becker 1909, 63, 68-69). A few years later, Becker wrote still more in his story of revolution. He argued in 1915 that merchants were, among other shortcomings, what would today be called “sunshine patriots. ” He suggested that merchants were all for non-importation as long as they could sell their wares at inflated prices, but after the supply was gone, they were back to trading and importing again (Becker 1915, 229).

This example perhaps best summarizes Becker’s view of the “rebels. ” To be sure, he mentions the roles of radical ministers in New England, and of other “agitators. ” Becker is perhaps best known for the line: “The war was not about home rule, but about who would rule at home. ” This theme springs up repeatedly in the writings of the progressive historians. Sometimes the words are a little different, but the theme remains constant. Oddly enough, one of the most outspoken writers on this topic was Charles Beard. He has entered the annals of American historiography as perhaps the quintessential economic-school historian.

His seminal work, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” published in 1913, argued that the forces of the revolution were in effect subverted by the forces of the established ruling class of the pre-war period. He argued that the history of America, and that the Constitution itself, was the result of Marxian-style class struggle. He further asserted that the Constitution was an economic document designed by those with money and property to protect those with money and property. This class-struggle view was applied by Beard to all of American history.

He would undoubtedly stress the labor-management strife of the 1930s and the oppression of Indians and blacks as well if he were writing today of the history of the Great Depression. He would probably explain the western movement as a result of oppressed factory workers leaving the factory in order to find opportunity in the West (this comment is offered as evidence of Beard’s odd-man-out status within the “progressive school”). Beard also stands alone among the progressive historians inasmuch as he wrote a consensus-style book in collaboration with his wife.

It was entitled “The Beards Basic History of the United States,” and was published in 1944. In it, he (is “they” perhaps better? ) seconded many of Jameson’s notions of the end of primogeniture, disestablishment of the Anglican Church, and so on. (Beard 1944, 119) But it is the chapter on the Constitution that stands out. The view of the Constitution that was offered by Beard was a much mellower view than the one offered by him a bit more than thirty years earlier. He discussed the various features of the document and extolled its virtues. In short, he seemed more tolerant of “men of property” (Beard 1944, 120-137).

Was it because two world wars had changed his world-view? Had he been cauterized by the barbarism of twentieth-century global war? On the other hand, had he merely begun to be more tolerant, as so often happens as people reach the ends of their lives? Probably all of these forces were in effect to one degree or another. Beard himself is quoted by Richard Hofstadter as saying in 1934 that “are indeed is the savant who does not appear to be at war with himself in his own breast” and in 1940 that “Olympian certitude has exploded” (Hofstadter, 285).

In any event, whether for wartime propaganda reasons, or for the reasons wrought by intellectual evolution, Charles Beard near the end of his life had softened his once-adversarial stance. The only important criticism of Beard is that economic interpretations of history that exclude all others, of the kind that Beard wrote in his earliest years, are at best one-dimensional. At worst they are narrow-minded, adversarial, sometimes even hate-filled, polemics.

Taking a similar approach to Beard’s in his interpretation of history through economic eyes is Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. But in many places Schlesinger sounds much more like Turner and Jameson than he sounds like Beard. ) What is perhaps Schlesinger’s most important work on the subject of the American Revolution first appeared in 1918, with a new edition in 1939. In the preface to the second edition, Schlesinger submitted that the assertions of the first edition had been “generally accepted by historians. ” And that seems exactly to be the case more than fifty years later. Schlesinger’s view was sectional: he saw “two revolutions,” one in the North and one in the South (Schlesinger, 6).

He argued that the non-importation policies of the colonies were far from universally successful. Nor were they universally accepted. Schlesinger’s view is that the non-importation zeal tended to be greater in the small towns rather than in the “great trading towns. ” He notes, for example, that the leading merchants had gained a fair amount of relief from Parliament by 1770, and that their fever for non-importation, which they had happily supported in 1768, had rather more than subsided by 1770.

The problem remained whether they could cease their non-importation practices without the consent of the general populace, which was largely composed of propertyless people of lesser means who still burned for the elimination of taxes entirely (Schlesinger, 218). The crux of the view is that this business of the “consent of the people” was not philosophical or even truly political: it was strictly an economic consideration.

Schlesinger puts it even more bluntly near the end of the book: … he choice, which every merchant had to make, was not, and could not be, a mere mechanical one, premised upon strict considerations of an informed class interest. Like other human beings, his mind was affected or controlled by powerful influences of temperament, environment and tradition. Furthermore, the degree to which his wealth was removable was an important factor in his decision, for his business and the good will of his customers were not commodities to be packed up and carried bodily into British lines.

These facts caused many a merchant to follow the line of least resistance when independence was promulgated (Schlesinger, 603; emphasis is mine). It is the italicized sentence that gives the essence of Schlesinger’s book. The point that he makes is that there was a great deal of Loyalist sympathy among the merchant class, despite the myth of united and universal opposition to British tyranny that had come to exist by 1900. Nevertheless, these traders were no traitors; but it was pragmatism, not sudden philosophical enlightenment, that caused them to modify or mitigate their true attitudes.

How many times have we heard it said? “You’ve got to go along to get along. ” So must it have been for the colonial merchants. This realization goes a long way to explain the on-again, off-again support for non-importation and later for independence that Schlesinger describes in such detail in his book. And at the root of it lies the influence of the masses, or at any rate the influence of what is nowadays called “public opinion. ”

There is, a single reason for mentioning the works of these two writers in this paper, and a single reason only: to demonstrate that American historiography in the Progressive Era was hardly unified in its interpretation. Just as “diversity” is a buzzword on today’s college and university campuses, so was genuine diversity a feature of American historiography. And, perhaps fittingly enough, this same diversity symbolizes one of the themes that progressive historians stress almost to a fault: that the views of the people during the war itself were far from universal.

And so it was with historians as they wrote their books during the Progressive era. John Fiske wrote a two-volume treatment of the American Revolution in 1891. To be sure, this was at the earliest stages of the Progressive movement in the United States, but it falls well within the boundaries. In that context, one can evaluate the contents of Fiske’s book, and in one other also: which occurred in various places in Turner’s writings. Fiske writes much in the second volume of his history of “drums and trumpets. ” However, there are still inklings of his views as to the nature of the war.

He writes, for example, of the “absurd talk of John Adams,” who proposed the annual election of general officers by Congress, and that “if some great men should be sent home as a result, [then the nation will not be ruined]” (Fiske, 31). Fiske sees this as a ludicrous notion to say the least, indicating his great-man orientation. (As an aside, Fiske writes of Benedict Arnold’s death-bed remorse at “ever having put on any other” uniform than that of the colonial forces, which story has found its way into American mythology.

In a sentence, Fiske writes of armies and leaders, of imperial nations and colonies, and of congresses and parliaments. He clearly does not write of rivers, mountains, and mass suffrage. Albert Bushnell Hart wrote his story of the Formation of the Union in 1894. The publisher, Longman’s, offered other works by professors of history, including one progressive professor who would someday become famous the world over: Woodrow Wilson. At the time, Fiske was an assistant professor of history at Harvard University.

Hart asserted that the Constitution was more than a compact, the term he assigned to the Articles of Confederation. He defined a “compact” as little more than a treaty, calling it an agreement between states that lost its force when one of the parties ceased to observe it. Instead, Hart held that the Constitution was as Daniel Webster had defined it: “… the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be supreme law” (Hart, 134).

Of geography, Hart writes not of mountains and alluvial plains, but of man-made boundaries and political competition related to enlarging the entities of the competitors. Again, as in Fiske, whom Hart recommends along with George Bancroft and Henry Adams, the view is of and from the top, not of the common citizen.

Are these writers of interest other than for the reason already offered? It is important to mention these writers as a corollary of the question that was posed at the outset–and sought at first “to duck”: exactly what is a “progressive historian? Again, spatial limitations require this to be brief: it is clear from examining the work of Fiske and Hart that if a “progressive historian” is defined as a writer of history during the Progressive Era, then the work one will encounter is diverse in its viewpoints and interpretations; if, however one defines a progressive historian as a member of a school of thought, then the events of the times in which they wrote take on a secondary value, supplanted by rivers, mountains, and the like.

But then one must remind oneself of the example of Charles Beard, if for no other reason than to sully and sunder that grand generalization… First, lets take a look at a few compare-and-contrast conclusions. Progressive historians have in common the world-view that goes with the economic interpretation of history. They do not, however, always conclude the same things (Jameson and Turner argued greater economic democracy, for example, while Beard argued the Constitution as a document written by the wealthy to protect the wealthy).

To a great degree, progressive historians are interested in geography, especially insofar as geographical factors are determinants in history. This interest varies, of course, from writer to writer, but Turner and Jameson are the best examples of those who ascribe to water-and-dirt determinism. Moreover, progressive historians, presuming that one defines the term as a historian who belongs to a school of thought, are interested more in the common man than in the great leaders; they are more likely to examine the writings of J. P. Martin than of George Washington.

They are in fact the predecessors of today’s social historians. This focus is consistent with a great-forces-over-great-men deterministic view, inasmuch as “the will of the people” becomes a great force akin to rivers and towns. But the last common factor is perhaps the most important: progressive historians are generally in agreement that the war was a true revolution, and their meaning of the word transcends the mere throwing-off of “British tyranny” that so enthralled writers like George Bancroft and Mercy Otis Warren.

This last factor brings the second part of the conclusions, which is more important than the first part. The argument that the war was a revolution is essentially universal among the progressives; that is, it is universal among those who took “progressive” world-views as they wrote. But the flip side of revolution is consensus. Turner, Becker, Jameson, et al. rgue that the war was fought for, or at least caused, greater democracy in the colonies. This may be true; that is, wars tend to cause the end of Old Orders and ancient regimes, but that is hardly a singular thing to say about the American Revolution. All of our wars have caused some sort or other of significant social change and reform.

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